Golden Boy

Feature by Willard Manus

GOLDEN BOY--MEMORIES OF A HONG KONG CHILDHOOD (Picador) by Martin Booth isn't a travel book per se. Although it does describe Hong Kong circa 1950s in a comprehensive way--the portraits of streets, neighborhoods and inhabitants are vivid and detailed--the book is mostly an intimate, deeply felt account of what it was like for a seven-year-old, blonde-haired gweilo (Chinese for foreigner) to grow up in that crowded, chaotic yet captivating Asian city.

Booth, the British author of numerous novels and non-fiction books, decided to write GOLDEN BOY in 2002, when he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer. Facing death, he took on the challenge of writing about his early life for the sake of his two children, both of whom were in their early twenties.

"Once I had set out upon the task, the past began to unfold--perhaps it is better to say unravel--before me," he confides in a foreword to GOLDEN BOY. "I did have some assistance in the form of a scrapbook and several photographic albums my mother had compiled, yet these did not so much prompt as confirm certain memories, flesh out anecdotes that have spun in my mind for years, rekindle lost names and put faces to them."

Booth had unique access to Hong Kong's inner life. His father, a low-level functionary attached to the British Navy, was posted there and spent most of his time at the office. A vain, pompous, abusive man, he was contemptuous of all things Chinese and retreated into drink and silence, unlike his wife who opened herself up to Hong Kong and soaked up its life-giving essences. She also encouraged young Martin to do the same and allowed him to explore and experience the city on his own.

Thanks to his innate courage and to his blonde hair (a local symbol of good luck), he poked into just about every part of Hong Kong, not just its bustling commercial quarters, but its hills, valleys and beaches, its dark, twisting, reeking back alleys, its opium dens, temples, brothels and gangster hideouts. He also made friends with Chinese kids, learned their language, sampled their food and drink, laughed and cavorted with them.

Booth's rare, adventurous childhood is recalled with humor and fondness in GOLDEN BOY, giving it a kind of Huck Finn appeal. But at the same time his recollections are also tinged with the darkness emanating from his spiteful, hateful father. Fortunately, the author's mother managed to stand up to her husband and kept him from crushing their only child's spirit. Joyce truly was a brave and heroic woman, a blithe, free spirit who was a battler as well.

The other heroes in the book are the Chinese people. Guarded, superstitious and sharp-tongued, they take on character and dimension as the memoir unfolds (and the author grows up). Full of salty wit and earthy common sense, they become the main influences on Booth's life, the characters who help make GOLDEN BOY such a pleasurable, even memorable read.